The Oscar Quest: Best Actress – 1954
This is the Oscar category. The quintessential category. The one everyone argues over. Grace Kelly or Judy Garland? Before we get into that, let’s recap 1954.
On the Waterfront wins Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint (talked about here), and Best Director for Elia Kazan (talked about here). All of them were perfect decisions. Then Edmond O’Brien wins Best Supporting Actor for The Barefoot Contessa (talked about here), which is historically a good decision, even though he didn’t give the best performance in the category.
Okay, back to the good part. This category may be the single strongest Best Actress category of all time. Most people look at Garland and Kelly, but look at the other three nominees — Dandridge, Hepburn, Wyman — there’s really great stuff there, too. But we all know this category comes down to Judy and Grace. So I’ll kill the suspense now and tell you flat out — Grace deserved this. Nothing against Judy, but when you weigh the two performances against one another, and then factor in the year Grace had on top of it — she’s actually an easy winner here. I know Groucho Marx called this “the biggest robbery since Brinks,” but it really wasn’t. Not when you factor in everything.
BEST ACTRESS – 1954
And the nominees were…
Dorothy Dandridge, Carmen Jones
Judy Garland, A Star is Born
Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina
Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
Jane Wyman, Magnificent Obsession
Dandridge — Carmen Jones is basically a musical version of Carmen, the Opera. It’s an all-black musical, to boot. I really like that they did that. You probably should know the story of Carmen — it’s pretty famous. So no synopsis. Just know that it follows the story pretty closely, and is actually a very good film.
Dorothy Dandridge is great as Carmen. It’s one of those performances you wish was in a weaker category so you could think about voting for it. But I can’t. I really can’t. At best she’s a number three here, and that’s if I don’t give into the temptation to vote for Audrey Hepburn or Jane Wyman. That’s a tall order. Even so, this is really between Kelly and Garland. So Dandridge unfortunately never had a chance here. (And even more so because she’s black. Because the Academy is terribly racist. So she really never had a shot here, back in 1954. A shame, really.)
Garland — A Star is Born is a very famous story, and is another one that shouldn’t be explained, because you should have seen it by now. Very simply: small-town girl, comes to Hollywood to make it big. Meets fading star whose become an alcoholic spectacle and falls in love. Her career takes off as his continues to decline. Brilliant story. Wonderfully made in 1937 by William Wellman, starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March.
I consider this version the My Fair Lady to the 1937 A Star is Born‘s Pygmalion. It’s the longer, more lavish, musical version of the same story. I watch one when I want the story, the other when I want the bells and whistles.
Anyway — Judy is terrific here. Just really, really great. People aren’t kidding with this one. She really was good enough to win. It’s gonna come down to her and Grace Kelly. Let’s not spoil the outcome now and just say — yes. She’s in the mix.
Hepburn — Sabrina is a terrific, terrific film. It’s weird — it feels like a forgotten Billy Wilder film. But I think that’s just because the man made so many classic films that any one that’s not those feels ‘minor’ in a way. But this is definitely one of his better ones (which isn’t saying much. Most of his films were ‘better’ ones).
The film is about Audrey Hepburn as a chauffeur’s daughter who lives in the guest house of a very, very wealthy family. Her father’s been the family driver for years, and she grew up around the family’s sons. And she’s been in love with the younger brother of the family (William Holden) for years. Thing is — he’s a womanizing playboy and never took notice of her. So she tries to kill herself (very horribly. She turns on all the cars in the garage, hoping to inhale the smoke, but of course they all make too much noise and someone comes and finds her). Then, afterward, she decides to take a trip to Paris to attend culinary school. While there, she blossoms. And she comes home and finally everyone starts to take notice of her.
And the film is about which brother she’s going to end up with, Holden, or Bogart (he’s the older brother who is the boring one who only cares about work, but is much more stable than Holden, who drinks and parties too much and will probably be unfaithful). And Audrey is in love with Holden, but it’s clear that he’s only interested in her physically and won’t make a good husband for her. But she doesn’t seem to realize that. And — well, you can guess what happens. It’s a really great film.
Audrey is great here, but I can’t help but feel like this nomination was part of the enchantment. Like, she burst onto the scene, got her Oscar, and they were just willing to nominate her for anything the year afterward. Which is cool, but, seeing as she won the year before this — she didn’t need it. She was only gonna win again for a really great performance (like the one she gave in 1959, or the one in 1961, or the one she wasn’t nominated for in 1967…). Here — fourth for a vote, at best. Third maybe because she’s Audrey. Still, it’s Grace and Judy. Love the film, love the performance, but it’s Grace and Judy here.
Kelly — The Country Girl. I went into this one the first time knowing nothing about it. I knew she won for it, but that’s it. I didn’t even bother to look at what else it was nominated for.
So I put it on, and I see Bill Holden. And I’m like, “Oh, he’s in this. That’s cool.” And he’s a playwright who’s trying to put on this new play, which he thinks will be perfect for this one star, Frank Elgin. And Frank is a former star who is now a terrible alcoholic, and he hasn’t been in a show in years. At least, a decent show. And Holden knows this show will be a hit. He knows that if Elgin is in this show that he’ll have a career rebound. Thing is — the producer isn’t going for it. Elgin is a drunk who burned a lot of bridges, plus he’s practically uninsurable. Why spend all that money to put on a show when the star could relapse at any moment?
So the beginning of the film is Holden trying to convince the producer that Elgin should be cast. And he brings Elgin in for an audition. So Elgin comes out, and — what do you know, it’s Bing Crosby. I had no idea Bing was even in the film. So Bing is Elgin. And he comes out and does his audition, and he quickly leaves afterward. And Holden adamantly convinces the producer to take a chance on Elgin. And he goes to Elgin’s apartment afterward, and meets his wife. That’s Grace. And she’s this cold woman who has aged well beyond her years. She’s a hard 30. The type that is 30 but looks 40 and dresses like she’s 50.
And Holden immediately takes a disliking to her. Because, whenever he talks to Bing, he’s always making these subtle comments about her. And based on what Bing said, and Kelly’s demeanor and appearance, Holden assumes she’s the reason Bing is an alcoholic and that she’s holding him back. And Holden starts having fights with her, because he’s convinced that she’s sapping his confidence. Like, Crosby will be having these great auditions, and then she’ll come in and he’ll start stinking. And then Crosby will start telling Holden that it’s her fault. And then she starts making these demands, about costumes and all these other things, making it seem like she’s controlling her weak husband. He begins to think that she’s the drunk, and that’s she’s suicidal and is using that to influence her husband and keep him down.
And over the course of the film, we find out several things. First, we find out that Bing became an alcoholic and gave up his career was because one ay he was out with his son, and his son was hit by a car and killed, and Crosby blamed himself for this. And we also find out that Crosby is actually the one behind everything, and it’s not Grace. That is — Crosby is actually still a terrible alcoholic, and he’s very demanding, and he plays it off to Holden like it’s her. So he’s been manipulating everyone around him and making them all think that it’s her. And the reason she’s aged so much is because she loves her husband and is trying to care for him. And her icy demeanor is because of all that she’s had to go through with him. He’s the suicidal drunk, not her. It was him that was demanding all the costume changes and stuff.
And then she and Holden start an affair, but, on opening night, Crosby ends up being a huge success (mostly because he engineered it to be that way), and Crosby ends up demanding some respect from the producer, getting his confidence back. And Holden figures — well, now that he’s got that back, he won’t be suicidal, and he has his career now, so now Grace is free to leave him and won’t have to put up with him anymore. So he asks Grace to leave Bing and go with him, but she refuses. And she ends up standing by her husbandm and we know that her life will only get worse at this point, because now Bing has confidence and will be just as demanding and will continue to sap her youth and beauty.
It’s a really powerful film. I was not even half as prepared to see what I saw as I watched this movie. It was a great, great film. And it wasn’t Kelly’s performance that immediately wowed me here — it was Crosby’s. Bing Crosby is really fucking good here as Frank Elgin. Of course, he gets a 20 minute head start on Grace, so just because he wowed me first doesn’t mean she wasn’t every bit as good as he was.
And Grace was really good here. When I first saw the film, I said, “Oh yeah, I can totally see it. I can see why she won.” So, she’s definitely a finalist — as we all know — and she should be. I won’t say anything about it now, except — it’s clearly between her and Judy. You have to be crazy to consider anyone else in this category.
Wyman — Magnificent Obsession is another one of those Douglas Sirk films. The man really knew how to make lush, and gorgeous, melodramas. This is cinema.
This one is about Jane Wyman as a doctor’s wife. One day, her husband suffers a fatal heart attack while on a case. Thing is, though, he could have been saved, if they were able to get him to the hospital in time. But they couldn’t get to him in time because they were out tending to Rock Hudson, a rich playboy, who was out joyriding a speedboat and crashed. And Hudson ends up with minor injuries and the doctor dies. And Wyman is very upset and hates Hudson for what he did, even though she doesn’t know him. And he ends up having a change of heart, and trying to apologize to her. And as she rebukes him, she steps in front of a car, is hit, and becomes blind. And Hudson, upset over this, vows to become a doctor. So he goes away for a decade and becomes a world famous surgeon. And he comes back, meets Wyman, and she doesn’t remember him. Or recognize him. So he begins a relationship with her, and eventually tries to find a doctor to help her get her eyesight back (which, of course, it ends up being him). It’s a really great film. Sirk films are always great.
Wyman is good here, but she had an Oscar already, and this isn’t really a performance that’s gonna get her a second one. Especially in a category like this. It still comes down to Grace and Judy.
My Thoughts: We know it’s Kelly vs. Garland. But quickly, let’s eliminate everyone else. It’s pretty easy, actually. Audrey won the year before this. Out. Not a performance gonna win back-to-back. Wyman had an Oscar. Not something that requires a second Oscar here. Not in this category. And Dandridge — great, but not as good as Garland. I’d like to vote for her, but I’d vote for Judy first. So it’s really Judy vs. Grace.
Now — both were great, and in terms of performance, they’re hard to compare, since one is pure dramatic and one is musical. Everyone will always have their preference, so I’m honestly not even going to try to compare them. It’ll only lead to more opinions. Let’s just call them a dead heat, separated only by personal preference. You may prefer one over the other (I’d imagine most people would prefer Judy, which is totally expected), but they were both solid. And I honestly go back and forth between the two myself. All the time.
There were several factors that influenced my decision. I stress the my portion of that. This is simply how I came to my decision as to who I was going to vote for.
First was the fact that I love the original A Star is Born. Most people prefer this version, but I saw the original first and fell in love with it. So I hesitated slightly upon the thought of voting for a performance the second go-round (like I did with My Fair Lady, or with Heaven Can Wait if it factored into any of its categories, which it didn’t really). So that kind of kept me from voting for Garland, but on the other hand, I held back from voting for Kelly because I felt I’d catch a lot of flak for it. That is — I know there are people who vehemently feel that Judy should have won, and I knew that as soon as I voted for Grace, they’d be like, “All she did was take off her makeup and put on glasses! That wasn’t a performance. Judy was magical!” (I’ll probably still get that even with this explanation.) I understand that, she was magical. But, there’s this other complicating factor we have to deal with…
When I watched the performances for the first time (Judy first, Grace second if we’re keeping score), I said to myself, “I actually think Grace was better.” I was all set to vote for Judy. I was gung-ho. But I saw Grace’s performance and said, “I think she actually deserved this win.” Now, my opinions of the films may have factored into it slightly, but I don’t think it was enough to make that much of a difference. I did end up really getting pulled in by The Country Girl, while A Star is Born was a film I’d seen before, so to me it was basically watching it hit all the plot points. I wasn’t sure, so I watched the films again. Twice.
First time I rewatched them, I may have been feeling a bit too, “I need to even this out,” because after the first time, I thought I was pulling way too much for Grace (because it was months later, and I knew I’d have to write it up, and was worried about catching shit and not being able to back it up with reasoning), so when I watched them, I went in with the, “Well, she is kind of just wearing glasses,” mindset, and ended up switching over to Judy.
But then, I watched them again recently (in preparation for this article going up), and I honestly couldn’t make up my mind. The whole thing got muddled. Plus, I was thinking about logistics and stuff — all this stuff that writing the articles got me to thinking about — so I had a whole different mindset going on. And after all that, I decided to just do it like this, because I just couldn’t decide, and I wasn’t going to simply let personal opinion decide, because personal opinion will change too much the more I think about it:
I rank the performances even. Dead heat. (I don’t care about your personal opinion, don’t tell it to me. This is my article.) In that case, I go by careers to see if I can find a tiebreaker. That’s a dead heat too. They’re both great actresses who had distinguished careers. (If anything, Grace gets the edge there, since Judy won an Oscar for Wizard of Oz. It wasn’t competitive, but it was something.) But then, I went by — what else were they in this year?
Judy? She only did A Star is Born.
Grace, on the other hand? The Country Girl, plus The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Green Fire, Dial M For Murder, and a little film called Rear Window. All of that. One year.
Now, when two performances are that closely matched, and one actress not only delivered the one great performance, but four more this year, how can you say she didn’t deserve to win?
And since I can’t make up my mind, I’m using those five films to tip the scales in Grace’s favor (not to mention picking the person who won is just easier anyway), and am voting for her. That’s how we’re doing it, that’s how it makes sense to me. You can say Judy should have won (to each his own), but you can’t say Grace didn’t deserve it.
My Vote: Kelly
Should Have Won: Kelly, Garland
Is the result acceptable?: Yes. No need to embellish. Yes. It was.
Performances I suggest you see: If you haven’t seen A Star is Born, you’re dead to me.
I’m making The Country Girl essential, because not only is it a great film, but it’s big in this category, and if you want to put forth an opinion on it, you need to see it. That and, Grace Kelly, William Holden and (holy shit) Bing Crosby all delivering fantastic performances (Bing especially) — it’s essential. Just see it. It’s great.
Magnificent Obsession is pretty damn close to essential if it’s not. Douglas Sirk films are essential for anyone who loves cinema. That’s all there is too it. If you don’t watch this, you don’t really love movies.
Sabrina is a Billy Wilder film, and those I count as essential if you want to be friends with me. Plus — Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden — you don’t love movies if you don’t see this. That’s like having four aces in your hand and folding, if you don’t see this. Don’t be a schmuck.
Carmen Jones is a great film. If you don’t like opera (and many people don’t), this is a chance to see Carmen on film. It’s not exact, of course, but it’ll give you a chance to know the story. Plus it’s a damn fine film and great to watch. Highly recommended.